On Exceptions and Practice

When ministers are granted exceptions to their church’s confessional standards the church is allowing personal disagreement with its doctrine on the part of the minister. In considering the question of exceptions, I have been looking at the freedom of the minister to teach the exceptions granted to him. An error sometimes made is the ordaining presbytery attempting to prohibit the minister from teaching his own views. But often an opposite and equal error occurs: the minister believes that since he is granted an exception from the church’s doctrine, his congregation does not have to practice the church’s doctrine.

Let me use my church, the EPC, as an example. The congregations of the EPC follow the denomination’s constitution, which includes the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. These confessional standards inform and determine the practice of the church. Exceptions to the confessional standards are exceptions of personal belief when ministers take their ordination vows. There is no element in that process to allow congregations, the constituent parts of the denomination, to institutionally reject the constitution of the church. Just as a presbytery may not bind the conscience of a minister when granting an exception, the minister may not bind his congregation to his disagreements with the church’s doctrine.

WLC 109 is part of the EPC’s confessional standards to which ministers often take exception. WLC 109 states that the second commandment continues to prohibit “…the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever…” Often ministers will disagree with the catechism on one of several grounds: I) This application of the second commandment goes too far; II) Using images of God to teach (e.g. flannel graph or children’s Bible) is ok, as is artwork for the sake of beauty (e.g. Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam); III) the incarnation of Christ changed the nature of this command since in his humanity Jesus visually made God known; and IV) it is impossible not to imagine a man when reading about Jesus in the Bible. This exception is commonly granted to ministers who disagree with the catechism on this point.

However, by a minister taking an exception to WLC 109, his congregation in which he is serving is not granted permission to disregard the church’s confession. A pastor may be ok with stained glass pictures of Jesus in the congregation’s sanctuary, but that does not permit the congregation to install them.┬áThe congregation is bound to conform its practice to the doctrinal position of the church, whether or not the minister agrees with that particular point of doctrine. In instances where the congregation, though not the minister, agrees with the doctrine of the church on this point, the minister is prevented from imposing his doctrinal divergence upon the congregation. In instances where the congregation and minister are of the same mind on an exception, they are prevented from straying from the implemented theology of the church.

Although this almost never actually happens.

Pastors and congregations often confuse the pastor’s personal doctrinal views with the position of the church, which is why this point is not often considered. Often pastors will defend their congregation’s deviating from the church’s confession on the grounds that the minister took an exception. But the minister does not take an exception on behalf of the congregation, but to reflect his conscience and take his vows sincerely.

This point highlights the inconsistency with granting exceptions. A pastor granted an exception to WLC 109 may teach his disagreement to his congregation, but the congregation may not practice what is preached. This is exactly what motivates proponents of prohibiting ministers from teaching their exceptions. This gets worse when exceptions like WLC 109 are pervasive, such that everyone vetting ministerial candidates already disagrees with the church’s confession on this point. This partially explains why congregations practice the common exceptions of their ministers: since all the pastors disagree with WLC 109, no one minds if it’s not followed (the other reasons being congregational ignorance of our confessions and the EPC’s deferential posture towards local congregations). There was an attempt in the PCA a few years ago to revise their confessional standards on the Sabbath, in order to better reflect that almost all PCA ministers were taking exceptions to it. The attempt was driven by the few pastors who didn’t take an exception, because they wanted a confession that their church actually followed, and they figured the best thing to do was revise the confession to match the theology of the majority of pastors.

The original purpose of exceptions in the Adopting Act of 1729 was certainly not what it’s become, which is nearly a free-for-all on doctrine not directly pertaining to the person of God or salvation. Worship and ethics have become the big casualties. Some people would rather just ignore the discrepancy between our confessional standards and the practice of the church, or make the doctrinal position of the pastor not just the de facto, but the de jure doctrine and practice of their congregation. The latter outcome is exactly what advocates prohibiting teaching exceptions fear, and with justification. Both options undermine the integrity of our church’s confession, that is, what we confess the scriptures to teach. There are two paths forward, which should strengthen our congregations. First, begin treating exceptions to our confession as exceptional. Second, our presbyteries need to be willing to have conversations about and be willing to act in ensuring that the practice of our churches matches our doctrine.